Some Iraq Hawks Still Haven't Learned the War's Horrific Costs

Without ever having confronted the toll, some hawks are now agitating for an attack on Iran

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Bill Kristol once observed in The Weekly Standard that anyone pondering war against Iraq had to confront what would happen after an invasion. "American and alliance forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators," he wrote. "Indeed, reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan. The political, strategic and moral rewards would also be even greater. A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed; the Palestinians more willing to negotiate seriously with Israel; and Saudi Arabia with less leverage over policymakers here and in Europe. Removing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power presents a genuine opportunity to transform the political landscape of the Middle East."

As U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Iraq, most of these predicted benefits have proven illusory. Despite his misjudgments, however, Kristol's confidence in his own strategic advice is sufficiently exalted that he is willing to agitate for a new war. "This Iranian regime has the blood of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan on its hands. It's a sponsor and facilitator of terror organizations that have killed innocent Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, Afghans, Argentinians, and many others," he writes. "It's a brutal dictatorship. And it's seeking nuclear weapons while denying it's doing so. It's long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands--force. And now we have an engraved invitation to do so. The plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was a lemon. Statesmanship involves turning lemons into lemonade."

In a country that grasped what President Lincoln meant when he said that "war at the best, is terrible," it would be discrediting, perhaps even seen as pathological, to compare the risky killing of faraway people to making lemonade. But nowadays Americans are not so averse to wars of choice, partly because a volunteer army, a secure homeland, and a jingoistic press shields us from its realities. We're a nation at war in multiple foreign lands; and for most of us, it's quite easy to forget the men and women serving, or the collateral damage we cause, or even that we're at war.  

The costs, however, are real.

As the last troops prepare to come home from Iraq -- hawks like Kristol eying the globe lustily for where they might be redeployed -- it's an opportune moment to attempt an uncomfortable accounting.

Let us confront and grasp the costs of the Iraq War.


So far, 4,482 American troops have been killed in Iraq, at least 1,287 of them younger than 22-years-old. That means almost 10,000 grieving mothers and fathers, perhaps as many siblings, many hundreds of widows, orphaned children, and tens of thousands of devastated friends, cousins, colleagues. Still, unless you live in the sort of community that sends a lot of its young into the Armed Forces, those numbers are probably an abstraction, a theoretical tragedy that you cannot connect to names or faces because the devastation is concentrated in a subculture to which you don't belong.

Here is one way to make it a little bit more real. Imagine all the players in the NBA. The familiar ones, like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, and Pao Gasol, plus all their teammates, down to the last guy on the bench. Imagine every last one of them killed in Iraq. Then add all the players in the NFL. The quarterbacks and running-backs and wide receivers, but also the offensive linemen, the special teams guys, the punters and field goal kickers, all the way down to the last guy on the bench. All killed in the Iraq War. And then add to that every last player in Major League Baseball, everyone on the expanded roster before the playoffs start, including the sluggers at the top of the batting order and the last relief pitcher who seldom steps on the mound. If all of those guys were killed too, you still wouldn't have equaled the number of American military personnel killed in the Iraq War.

In addition to every player in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, you'd have to add every last member of the 2008 US Summer Olympic Team, even the synchronized swimmers. And if all were killed in Iraq, you'd still need to add every member of Congress, the House and the Senate, at which point you'd be 5 people short of the actual number of American military men and woman killed.

Of course, Americans didn't fight alone.

179 British troops died. 33 Italians, 23 Poles, 18 Ukrainians, 11 Spanish, 7 Danes, 5 El Salvadorans, 4 Slovaks, and 4 Georgians were killed. Plus 3 Latvians, 3 Romanians, 2 Australians, 2 Estonians, 2 Netherlanders, 2 Thais, a Czech, a Hungarian, a South Korean, a Kazakh, and a man from Azerbaijan. At least 528 non-Iraqi civilians have been killed during the Iraq War. And 149 journalists, including Michael Kelly, then editor of this magazine, were killed covering it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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